I am a member of the strong minority that believes that Captain America: The First Avenger is the best of the recent crop of Marvel movies. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is great fun, but the Captain America story is much more emotionally rich. During World War II, an incredibly scrawny, sickly Steve Rogers tries over and over again to enlist in army, but he’s repeatedly rejected. Finally, his verve and bravery catch the eye of the right general, and he’s injected with a serum, bombarded with a lot of electricity, and he grows a foot and some absurd muscles. He becomes Captain America and leads a special team of heroes and spies to fight the Nazis and an evil offshoot called HYDRA. During a major battle, the Captain is in a plane that crashes into the Arctic Ocean. He is thought dead for 70 years, but then his body is found in a block of ice and – because it’s a comic book world – thawed and brought back to life.
The sequel, the fun and surprisingly political thrill-ride Captain America: The Winter Soldier, takes place in the present day. Now, the Captain (Chris Evans, a fine, if not terribly exciting, square jawed hero) is a member of the superhero team the Avengers and he works for SHIELD, the Marvel Universe’s combo of the CIA, NSA, and every New World Order black helicopter fantasy. Unlike his extremely cynical boss Nick Fury (the increasingly creaky Samuel L. Jackson), the Captain still embodies the World War II morality, in which the ends justifies the means, but only if the end is “freedom.” He’s appalled that SHIELD will be creating a massive flying machines to take out threats before they fulfill their nefarious goals. Fury counters, saying, “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!” The Captain: “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”
The Captain, of course, is both right and prescient, because Fury doesn’t realize that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, whose goal is not to just take out plotting terrorists but anyone in the world who is capable of disrupting the perfect orderly world they want to create. Using three airborne aircraft carriers – think boxier versions of Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars – they plans to slaughter 20 million potential. Led by the dastardly Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, doing evil just fine), HYDRA first must get rid of Fury, the Captain, his new sidekick the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Widow, better down as Agent Romanov (Scarlett Johansson, having the time of her life). HYDRA’s greatest asset is a mysterious superhuman assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan); he has big guns, a mechanical arm, no fear, and a shocking secret identity.
The requisite fight scenes are surprisingly well choreographed and thrilling, especially since the directors, Joe and Anthony Rosso, have never directed anything but sitcoms. I loved the Captain’s physically impossible acrobatic slugfests with the Winter Soldier, and Agent Romanov kicks a great deal of ass while becoming late-night fantasy fodder for a lot of straight fanboys and lesbian fangirls. The Russos also do a laudable job with the extensive CGI, which is as clear as Whedon’s and James Cameron’s and thankfully not in 3D.
This is the first Marvel film since X-Men United (2003) that makes a political point, and it’s first ever to make that point explicitly. The second X-Men compared the plight of mutants with that of real-world gays and lesbians, though only metaphorically. The Winter Solider, however, is an explicit attack on the American government’s security overreach, tapping phones, tracking Internet usage, and watching everyone on video. The argument is the Captain’s: This is not the freedom we fought for. There’s a certain irony here, of course, since like all of the big movie studios, Disney, which owns Marvel, is part of the problem, pushing for more restrictive copyright laws that will be used to throttle the free flow of information and to track anonymous file sharers they claim are eating at Disney’s enormous profits. That said, I was impressed that Marvel made a superhero film that is also an old-style spy thriller, complete with a critique of the methods of war. Well, some of the methods. Killing is pretty much okay, and the body count in The Winter Soldier is so high as to be uncountable.
Captain America: The Winter Solider
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 for tons of violence